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In Praise of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Who Made Ben-Gurion a Socialist

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Harriet Beecher Stowe.Credit: wikimedia

The World’s Homage

Oliver Wendell Holmes

If every tongue that speaks her praise
For whom I shape my tinkling phrase
Were summoned to the table,
The vocal chorus that would meet
Of mingling accents harsh or sweet,
From every land and tribe, would beat
The polyglots at Babel.

Briton and Frenchman, Swede and Dane,
Turk, Spaniard, Tartar of Ukraine,
Hidalgo, Cossack, Cadi,
High Dutchman and Low Dutchman, too,
The Russian serf, the Polish Jew,
Arab, Armenian, and Mantchoo*,
Would shout, 'We know the lady!'

Know her! Who knows not Uncle Tom
And her he learned his gospel from
Has never heard of Moses;
Full well the brave black hand we know
That gave to freedom's grasp the hoe
That killed the weed that used to grow
Among the Southern roses.

When Archimedes, long ago,
Spoke out so grandly, 'Dos pou sto_--
Give me a place to stand on,
I'll move your planet for you, now,'--
He little dreamed or fancied how
The sto at last should find its pou
For woman's faith to land on.

Her lever was the wand of art,
Her fulcrum was the human heart,
Whence all unfailing aid is;
She moved the earth! Its thunders pealed,
Its mountains shook, its temples reeled,
The blood-red fountains were unsealed,
And Moloch sunk to Hades.

All through the conflict, up and down
Marched Uncle Tom and Old John Brown,
One ghost, one form ideal;
And which was false and which was true,
And which was mightier of the two,
The wisest sibyl never knew,
For both alike were real.

Sister, the holy maid does well
Who counts her beads in convent cell,
Where pale devotion lingers;
But she who serves the sufferer's needs,
Whose prayers are spelt in loving deeds,
May trust the Lord will count her beads
As well as human fingers.

When Truth herself was Slavery's slave,
Thy hand the prisoned suppliant gave
The rainbow wings of fiction.
And Truth who soared descends to-day
Bearing an angel's wreath away,
Its lilies at thy feet to lay
With Heaven's own benediction.

*Mantchoo – Manchu (i.e., Chinese).

The second of “Two Poems to Harriet Beecher Stowe on Her Seventieth Birthday, June 14, 1882”

In its July 2, 1896 obituary, The New York Times dubbed Harriet Beecher Stowe (b. 1811)  “the writer of probably the most widely read work of fiction ever penned” – “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852 and swiftly translated into many languages. (For this discussion, we’ll ignore the implications of hypocrisy and toadyism that “Uncle Tom” acquired over the years.)

Oliver Wendell Holmes.Credit: wikipedia.

David Gruen (who would become David Ben-Gurion) read it as a boy, in the Hebrew translation by Avraham Zinger (Ohel Hadod Tom, Warsaw, 1898). Later he noted: “I was taken aback by the idea of slavery, that a man could exploit other men so crudely,” and in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” (Yale University Press, 2014) Anita Shapira, emerita professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, asserts: “’Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ made him a socialist.”

Barbara Hochman, professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of “’Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and the Reading Revolution” (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011) says the book “attacks slavery as a brutal, wicked, economic system Stowe was careful not to attack the U.S. as a whole, only damning the system of slavery, it's easy to see how the book could be taken as condemning capitalism and supporting socialism, if someone is inclined to read from that perspective.”

From a different perspective, Vladimir Jabotinsky, modern Israel’s other father (on the right), also appreciated "Uncle Tom's Cabin" as the book “which most directly influenced modern history,” a lever for change, as developed in the Archimedes’ discovery trope.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894), a poet, physician and Harvard professor, grappled with the part of his Calvinist education that despised other religions. He snipes at Catholicism in the picture of the nun telling her rosary as far less effective than the activist Stowe “Whose prayers are spelt in loving deeds.” As for the Jews, in his “Over the Teacups” (1891), he postulated: “Jews are with us as a perpetual lesson to teach us modesty and civility. The religion we profess is not self-evident. It did not convince the people to whom it was sent.”

* Musing: If “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” delegitimized slavery, are Culture Minister Miri Regev’s fears that a work of art could delegitimize Israel justified?

* Bonus: White abolitionist “Old John Brown” was killed in the abortive armed uprising he led in 1859 at Harper’s Ferry. The Union marching song “John Brown’s Body Lies A-moldering in the Grave” provided the tune for Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”